Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Why All of Us Need a Thanksgiving



This week, there was an article in the Forward entitled “Why I Detest Thanksgiving — and You Should Too”, in which the British born author tells of his contempt for the various elements of Thanksgiving. Most of all, he sees Thanksgiving as an exercise in hypocrisy,  where an imperfect country pats itself on the back while ignoring all of its flaws.

This article, which must be challenged on the author’s evidence, also misses something larger. The entire point of Thanksgiving is gratitude. Gratitude is the ability to recognize what is good in our lives, and be thankful for it. The habits of gratitude are actually what build community, tolerance and democracy. It’s not just that we have Thanksgiving to thank for a wonderful country; it is that the habits of appreciation make our country better.

To slam a country for all of its faults without opening your eyes and heart to its wonders is not ungrateful, but actually destructive. Most Americans (thankfully!) celebrate Thanksgiving wholeheartedly. And actually, this is a ritual that we should bring to Israel. Years ago, I wrote the following piece on why Israel needs a Thanksgiving as well. Here it is:



To Americans, Thanksgiving is serious business. Yes, the rituals are pretty simple: turkey, cranberry sauce and football. But it truly feels like a national holiday, and Thanksgiving is the most popular national holiday in the U.S., even more popular than the fourth of July.

The genius of Thanksgiving is that it bases patriotism on gratitude. Other national holidays around the world are grandiose, flag waving affairs, intended to glorify the country and inspire loyalty in the citizenry. These holidays feature public events, military parades and fireworks displays. Thanksgiving is a far simpler affair: it is always celebrated at home. It is about gratitude for a home, a happy family, a harvest, and at the same time, gratitude for a safe country. This minimalist approach to patriotism resonates with everyone, because countries don’t have to be great to be appreciated; they just have to be a place we can call home. The Rabbis of the Mishnah understood this, and said one must even pray on behalf of inferior governments, because without them “one person would devour the other alive”. Patriotism rooted in simple gratitude will have the widest appeal.

Gratitude is more than a popular argument for patriotism. It is the very foundation of any society. The Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th century work, sees gratitude as the foundation of all relationships, including belief in God. This view is adopted by many of the great thinkers of the Mussar movement. Indeed, in a gratitude free world, pessimism reigns. And pessimism is a harsh corrosive, with negativity about life in general infiltrating into, and undermining, all relationships. A marriage, a family or a community devoid of gratitude will certainly fall apart. Of course, this is true of a country as well.

Perhaps the one thing that ideologues of the right and left in Israel agree upon is pessimism. Both believe the country is falling apart; they simply quibble over who is to blame. The left invokes the assassination of the Yitzchak Rabin to demonstrate that the right are a bunch of bloodthirsty extremists who hate democracy. The right invokes the disengagement from Gaza to demonstrate that the left are a bunch of appeasing, heartless people who throw their fellow Jews out of their homes. However, if you remove the political particulars, all of these arguments are essentially the same: “The country is falling apart. And you, you (leftist idiot/rightist fanatic/religious dinosaur/soulless secularist) are the traitor who is to blame”.
Ironically, this pessimism is self fulfilling. The greatest danger to Israel is not the right or the left or the religious or the secular, but rather the way all segments of society relate to each other. These nasty divides are the product of sincere, but pessimistic ideologues, who are doing their best to prevent the destruction of Israel. But their pessimism adds a dangerously bitter edge to their rhetoric, transforming political opponents into personal enemies, and democratically elected Prime Ministers into dangerous pursuers of innocent blood.

Yes, as a diaspora Jew I should not be giving sermons to people who have invested their lives in the Jewish homeland (and yes, if you must know, I do feel guilty about not having made aliyah). But any casual observer of the Israeli scene is aware that in political and public discourse, pessimism prevails over gratitude.

This is why Israel needs a Thanksgiving. A day to remember all the blessings we can be grateful for: For freedom and prosperity. For being able to live in the country of our ancestors. For a democracy, which, with all of its flaws, is still a true democracy. (Anyone who’s forgotten what a dictatorship looks like should visit one of Israel’s neighbors). And most importantly, to thank God for the miracle of the State of Israel. One hundred and fifty years ago, the probability of a state of Israel existing was less likely than a Martian invasion. Our ghetto dwelling ancestors, had they been able to see movies of contemporary Israel, would have assumed the Messiah had arrived. An Israeli Thanksgiving would allow to reclaim the sense of wonder previous generations had about the State of Israel.

Perhaps, if we get intoxicated with gratitude, we may begin to appreciate our brothers and sisters. Maybe the supporters of the left will show gratitude for the right’s intense love for this country. And supporters of the right will show gratitude for left’s intense concern for social justice. Maybe the Haredim will appreciate how secular Jews have built a safe and prosperous country; maybe the secularists will appreciate the profound Jewish spirituality the Haredim bring this country. Maybe we’ll learn to appreciate each other.

On Israeli Thanksgiving, we could thank God for nourishing food and loving families, for our homeland and our country. And we could thank God for each other, for making us part of the wild and wonderful family known as the Jewish people.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Do You Have When You Have Nothing?



My mother was sixteen when she was sent to the Kolozsvár Ghetto. There, as she and her family were stripped of their remaining possessions, she experienced her first taste of the torture the Nazis would inflict on her. Men were taken out at night by Hungarian guards and members of the Gestapo, and a flame was held to their feet to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the any gems or gold they might have hidden. From that point on, things only got worse. She was deported from the ghetto to Auschwitz, then sent to a labor camp a few weeks later, and finally, towards the end of the war, escaped while on a death march.

Those first moments of freedom must have been frightening for my mother. How does a 17 year old girl look forward to life without a home, a country, a single possession? What do you have when you have nothing?

As my children were entering their teens, I would emphasize to them the contrast between their childhood and my mother’s. I used to think of this contrast only in one direction, as in how much more my children have than their grandmother did at their age: freedom, security, and material comfort.

Now, I think there is another contrast: my children’s generation, with all of its material advantages, still struggles with resilience and character. The generation of survivors, the people who had nothing, who had every reason to emotionally collapse, exhibited remarkable character. If you asked these survivors the question: what do you have when you have nothing? The answer would be, you have a lot.

The Roman orator and statesman Cicero wrote: “Omnia mea mecum porto” - “I am carrying all my things with me”.  Rav Azriel Hildesheimer,  at opening of Berlin Rabbinical Seminary in 1873, related this quote from Cicero to a Talmudic passage that says “Blessing rests only on a thing which is hidden from sight[1]. Rav Hildesheimer explains “that the only blessing is that which is invisible, that is, of the spirit and the idea.”, and that the lesson of Jewish history is that “the scorned, sold and mortgaged Jewish servant, who has been driven out at the whim of others, was continuously reminded, again and again, that his only true belonging was that which he carried with him constantly, which no one could separate him from[2].”

This lesson is what I learned from my mother’s example: the greatest gifts are the ones you carry in your heart.  These survivors, these penniless, unfortunate, persecuted refugees possessed something invaluable: their heart. And that is all that mattered.

But what do you carry in your heart? First of all, you carry your education with you; nothing could be more practical. Kohelet (4:13) writes: “Better to be a wise and poor youth, than a foolish and well established elder statesman.” In the end, wisdom is the most valuable commodity, and education has always been a Jewish priority.

A perfect example is the Jewish interest in medicine, a field Jews still dominate today. Dr. Avram Mark Clarfield offers an anecdote that underlines how unusual the Jewish dominance of medicine is:

“Several years ago, while talking to a group of physicians in an Edinburgh hospital, we got to discussing which nation had the monopoly on first-class medical research.


"It's clearly the Germans," offered a Scottish physician.


"Why?" I asked.

"Because the authors of most of the articles in the most prestigious American journals all have names like Levine, Glickman, Berliner and Feinstein--obviously all of German origin."

I smiled to myself.[3]


This keen interest in medicine goes back to the Middle Ages. Joseph Shatzmiller in Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society, tells of countries where less than 1 percent of the population was Jewish, yet Jews were over 50% of the doctors. Clearly, education was important to Jews, and in particular, medical education. Some have speculated that this is because that “by providing Jewish practitioners with a craft they could “carry” with them whenever they had to leave their homes and establish themselves in a new place, the practice of medicine also eased the harsh circumstances that stemmed from imposed migration (evictions and expulsions)[4].”

The wandering Jews of Europe needed an asset they could monetize anywhere; and so they relied on their education to support themselves whenever they had to find a new home.

But the lesson of Omnia mea mecum porto refers to more than education. It reminds us that the mindset we carry determines our happiness. This lesson, one that was stressed by the Stoics, finds expression in the Mishnah[5] that says “Who is the mighty one? He who conquers his impulse...Who is the rich one? He who is happy with his lot”. Strength and wealth are primarily a matter of mindset. When facing challenges courage is more important than strength; in everyday living, contentment is more important than wealth.

All of us would nod our heads in agreement when hearing these lessons. However, this is not the way we actually live. An abundance of material comfort doesn’t diminish material desires, but on the contrary, makes us more materialistic. The Talmud[6] sees the wealth the Jews took out of Egypt as a corrupting influence, and the motivating cause behind the Golden Calf.  Similarly, material success has reoriented the way Americans think. Tim Kasser notes that contemporary Americans think that the “goods life” is the path to the “good life”[7].  This mistake leads to a great deal of unhappiness. Kasser notes multiple studies that show that the more materialistic someone is, the less happy they are likely to be.

That is why the lesson of the Mishna is so significant: How many people actually are happy with their lot?

The experience of having nothing teaches us how to be grateful for everything. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was “hunger is the best cook”. She said that the food she ate right after being liberated was the best meal she ever ate in her life, because the overwhelming hunger she experienced at the time brought out the best in the bland food she ate. With the right outlook, any piece of food is exceptional; and the mindset of one who has nothing sees life as a gift, not a given.

Beyond education  and mindset, the final (and most important) item to carry is: values. (Before discussing this further, it needs to be noted that for a Jew, faith in God is a given, a spiritual oxygen that sustains us every day. And faith is an all encompassing value, and all other values are just a commentary on faith. But what are those other values?)

David Brooks, (based on The Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik), coined two types of virtues a person can have:  “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”[8].

Some virtues are about work: can you compete? Are you pragmatic? A good leader? A financial wizard? Other virtues are about the types of accomplishments people speak about at a funeral: Did you volunteer? What type of father were you? Were you idealistic? I would point out this contrast between the domains of “resume” and “eulogy” is not just about virtues; it is about priorities and values, about the content and purpose of life.

This lesson is found in Jeremiah (9:22-23), who inspires the Mishnah in its’ comments on the worthiness of strength, wisdom and wealth:

Thus says the Lord:


“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,

Let not the mighty man glory in his might,
Nor let the rich man glory in his riches;
But let him who glories glory in this,
That he understands and knows Me,
That I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord.


Jeremiah offers a harsh appraisal of human success. Do the resume virtues of wisdom, strength, or wealth matter? No, they are not important. What matters are the values love, justice and righteousness; what matters are eulogy virtues, which are a blueprint to the meaning of life. For this reason, Maimonides at the end of his great philosophical work, the Guide to the Perplexed[9], offers an exposition of this verse in Jeremiah, because he sees these values are the very purpose of our lives. 

Love, justice and righteousness are most compelling when you experience them directly. These eulogy virtues matter because we intuitively understand that they endow our lives with meaning. Dr. David Pelcovitz told me a powerful story about a 9 year old girl that illustrates how inspiring eulogy virtues are.

A 9 year old girl, encouraged by her mother, started to volunteer by visiting an elderly woman who had lost most of her eyesight. One day, while chatting with the young girl, the woman explained that she could recover her eyesight if she would have a small operation; but because she was on a fixed income, she lacked the resources to pay for this expensive procedure. Inspired to action, the girl went home and told her mother that she was going to do a fundraiser to pay for the elderly woman’s operation. The mother smiled at her daughter’s good intentions, but assumed, like most parents, that her daughter’s naive dream would soon disappear.



The next day, the girl went to school and began to raise money. She went from class to class, from teacher to teacher, and at the end of the day, after all the change had been exchanged into bills, the girl had a grand total of 83 dollars. She took the thick envelope stuffed with singles, and ran off to her elderly friend. Not knowing much about contemporary medical economics, the girl announced to her elderly friend that she had raised the money for the operation! So, the young girl and the elderly woman took a short walk over to the local Ophthalmologist’s office.


The doctor examined the elderly woman, and says yes, she is a candidate for the procedure, and he can do it right away. At that point, the young girl chirps up and says that she will pay for the procedure, and produces the envelope with the 83 dollars.

The doctor does the operation.

The girl comes home, and reports to her mother the day’s events. The mother is mortified; she assumes that her daughter has somehow misled the doctor. She runs to the doctor’s office to apologize, and to negotiate a way to pay him the balance. As the mother continues to talk, the doctor cuts her off in middle, and opens his jacket. In his inside pocket is the envelope, stuffed with singles; he had not put the cash away. He told the mother that this envelope was far more precious to him than any amount of money, because this envelope reminded him of goodness of humanity and why he became a doctor in the first place.


This is a story about values: the values of a mother, a daughter and a doctor. They all understand the lesson of “Omnia mea mecum porto”, that it is what you carry in your heart that matters; and if your heart is filled with love, justice and righteousness you have everything you need. And if there is one lesson I want my own children to remember it is this: what you need most in life cannot be put in a suitcase. Just carry your education, carry your character, and carry your values;  then you will have everything you need.






[1] Baba Metzia 42a
[2] Marc Shapiro, “Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer’s Program of Torah u-Madda”, The Torah u-Madda Journal 9 (2000), page 80
[3] Clarfield, A. M. (2003). Jews and Medicine. Medical Post, 39(6), page 27
[4] Carmen Caballero Navas, “Medicine among Medieval Jews: The Science, the Art, and the Practice”, in Science in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) page 339
[5] Pirkei Avot 4:1
[6] Berachot 43a
[7] Kasser, Tim (2006). Materialism and Its Alternatives. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), A Life Worth Living: Contributions to Positive Psychology (pp. 200-214).
[8] https://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy
[9] III:54

Friday, September 01, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Bulletin 2017 - The Greatest Story on Earth

Twenty five years ago, I attended a symposium on the topic of “Why Be Jewish?” This topic fascinated me; despite all of my extensive Yeshiva training, we had focused very little on basic questions like “why be Jewish?” So I was eager to hear what the presenters, a group of well known Jewish leaders and Rabbis, would say on the subject.
I left sorely disappointed. The speakers offered a stream of mealy mouthed bromides, woven with a colorless assortment of platitudes about community, family, and  traditions; many used a subdued tone of voice, as if they were delivering a eulogy. The cynic inside me wondered if the speakers even believed in what they had to say.
Since that conference, I have thought constantly about the topic of “why be Jewish?”. And then, one evening in 2006, it all became clear.
I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, returning to my hotel room after a wedding. I turned on the television, hoping to get a mindless rerun, but to my surprise, I got an evangelical sermon. (They call it the Bible Belt for a reason). The preacher was encapsulating his sermon into four points. The first of these points was: “There cannot be another Holocaust”. He reminded his audience about Genesis 12:3, God’s promise to Abraham (“in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed”) and then explained how Christians must protect the Jews and Israel, and that without Jews, Christianity is dead.
I was amazed; here, in Charlotte, North Carolina, far from any major Jewish population, a Minister was preaching to hundreds of thousands of people about how much they have to love the Jews. How on earth did that happen?
At that moment my answer to the question of “why be Jewish?”crystallized: being a Jew means being a part of the greatest story on earth.
Many find it uncomfortable talking about how proud they are to be Jews, and consider it unseemly. (And it must be noted that some expressions of Jewish uniqueness can be arrogant and triumphalist.)  However, for Jews ignore their own story is foolish. Even a casual observer of the Jews cannot overlook their epic history. As Winston Churchill put it: "Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.” Churchill, the preacher in Charlotte, and the billions around the world who follow Christianity and Islam recognize how remarkable our Jewish heritage is; so should Jews.
What is the Jewish story?
It includes 3,300 years of history, with a religion, that inspires 2 other religions, and through them most of the people in the world, and laid the foundation for Western civilization. (John Adams, the 2nd US President wrote “for in Spi of Bolingbroke and Voltaire I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize Men than any other Nation. If I were an Atheist and believed in blind eternal Fate, I should Still believe that Fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential Instrument for civilizing the Nations”. )
It includes Prophets, Rabbis, philosophers, scientists and grandmothers, who together have brought us the Bible, composed the Talmud,  received 0 Nobel Prizes, and made enormous quantities of chicken soup. And despite two millennia filled with some of the worst persecution in human history, this people persevered and returned home.
This is the greatest story on earth. It is a story which contains many stories, and although I will refer to four of them, there are many more.
The first great Jewish story is the about a partnership. Jews see themselves as God’s partners in building the world, and multiple Jewish thinkers from Hillel to Rav Soloveitchik have offered explanations of this idea.
It can be described in three steps.
  1. God created the world in order to create goodness.
  2. The world is not good yet.
  3. The task of man, and indeed, the best way for man to come close to God, is to become God's partner in bringing goodness to this world.
Man seeks God, not only, and not primarily, by secluding himself on a mountaintop or a study hall, but by finding a way to do God's work in this world. With a profound sense of divine connection, we are moved to do divine work by feeding the hungry, caring for the forgotten, and fixing what is broken.
This partnership has transformed the world. There are Nobel Prizes, philanthropies, and an army of volunteers. And there is the work of the State of Israel. This tiny country, the 152nd largest country in the world, is consistently the first responder in any international tragedy, time and again. This embattled country has accepted thousands of Syrians for medical, notwithstanding 70 years of hostility. This unlikely country has found unique ways to help people from around the world. Israel is the home of organizations like Save A Child’s Heart, which in the last 20 years has done 4,000 heart operations for children around the world, most of whom come from countries hostile to Israel.
The New York Times (August 14, 2016) reported on one such operation, of Yehia, a 14 month old boy, who had been born with his two main arteries reversed and two holes in his heart. His parents, Afghans living in Pakistan, found a local specialist who could perform the necessary surgery, but the price tag was $7,000. The family’s savings, $200, had already been depleted by medical bills. Through a series of connections, they located an American-Israeli who connected the family with Save a Child’s Heart, which got them the plane tickets and visas, and recruited Urdu speakers in Israel to translate for the family. In an eight-hour surgery at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Yehia’s life was saved.

The Times described the operation this way: “Dr. Yahyu Mekonnen, 33, an Ethiopian surgeon, opened Yehia’s chest. Dr. Lior Sasson, who headed an operating team of nearly a dozen people, hummed an Israeli song while they stopped his tiny heart, to patch it up.”
I read this article in pure astonishment. How is that possible that an Afghani child from Pakistan meets an American-Israeli and is then operated on by a Ethiopian-Israeli surgeon in Israel? how does this improbable chain of events come about? Because of this great partnership, a central part of the greatest story on earth.
The second  Jewish story is the story of  family. Maimonides writes in the Laws of Giving Charity (Matnot Aniyim 10:2):
“The entire Jewish people and all those who attach themselves to them are as brothers...And if a brother will not show mercy to a brother, who will show mercy to them?”
Maimonides says Jews see each other as family. Indeed, the language the Bible uses for the Jewish people is “children of Israel”, reflecting the fact that even as a nation, we are meant to see ourselves as family.
Of course, like any family, there is plenty of dysfunction; the Book of Genesis is the story of a family struggling to overcome strife, and the search for unity.
But as history progressed, what has happened is a that a worldwide community has developed, and for the most part we feel like a family. We sacrifice and care for each other in exceptional ways. The daring rescue mission in Entebbe, (during which Yoni Netanyahu gave his life), was undertaken by the State of Israel to protect Jewish brothers and sister from around the world who had been taken captive.
Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned by the Soviet Union from 1978-1986 drew strength from this rescue. he wrote:
"The sound of a plane would always remind me of Yoni and his friends, who flew thousands of kilometers to the aid of their people. Each time I heard it hope and faith would well up in me with a new vitality and I would think: Avital is with me, Israel is with me. Why should I be afraid?"
Sharansky was right; Jews around the world were fighting for his release. They were doing so because as a family, they were going to stand in solidarity with their brother Natan.  
The next Jewish story is the story of a great redemption. One would expect a nation that was scattered around the world, persecuted for 1900 years, and then endured a Holocaust, to disappear. Yet the opposite has happened, because Jewish history runs counter to the laws of history.
On January 31st, 1961, a debate about Israel and the Jews took place at McGill University in Montreal between Ambassador Yaakov Herzog and Professor Arnold Toynbee.

Herzog, 39, was the son of a the late Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, and both a talented diplomat and a respected Rabbinic scholar; Toynbee, 71, was a prominent historian. Toynbee’s 12 volume magnum opus, “A Study of History”, was based on the theory that all civilizations pass through several distinct stages: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration. So how to explain the Jews? Toynbee theorized that Judaism was a “fossil civilization”, and merely a relic of the past. The fact that Jews could continue to exist in exile instead of disintegrating could only be explained by arguing that they were actually natives of their host country rather than an independent culture.

Herzog attacked Toynbee from multiple angles. He noted that the Jews had a unique connection to the past and to each other; and that Rabbi Akiva, who died in 135 C.E.,  could walk into the local synagogue and understand what was going on, as could any Jew from any part of the world. These types of connections, to history and to each other, shouldn't exist in a fossil that was absorbed by multiple host cultures.

Herzog’s trump card was the State of Israel. He asked, what fossil has ever returned home and started over again?. To this, even Toynbee had to grudgingly admit that perhaps the Jews had “defossilized.”
It s easy to understand Professor Toynbee: the Jews really should be fossils. There should only be a Jewish history, not a Jewish present. But theories of history can’t explain the greatest story on earth.
During the first destruction, as the Jews left their land to uncertain exile for the first time, Jeremiah told them (Jer. 33:10-11):
“Thus said the LORD: Again there shall be heard in this place, which you say is ruined, without man or beast—in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man, without inhabitants, without beast— the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride…”
The words of Jeremiah’s prophecy became part of the wedding liturgy, and even today, the entire audience bursts into song when we get to these words. Such is the Jewish desire for redemption, one that endured for 1,900 years.
A few years ago, I was staying at a hotel in Jerusalem, and waiting for the elevator. When it arrived, a bride in her wedding dress surrounded by her entourage got out. For a moment, my heart skipped a beat; Jeremiah’s prophecy, one which had given so much comfort to generations of persecuted Jews, was now true. The story of a great redemption was standing right in front of me, wearing a white wedding gown.
These three stories, of partnership, of family and of redemption, are part of the greatest story on earth. But there is one more story, a story that is yet to be told: the story of the Jewish future.
As a Rabbi, it is my job to worry about the Jewish future; and there is plenty to worry about in a time of rising assimilation and declining birthrates. It is easy to question the Jewish community’s long term prospects. But it would be a mistake to bet against a Jewish future, considering how improbable the Jewish past has always been.
Years ago, I was officiating at a funeral for a friend’s mother. He was an only child, and his parents were Holocaust survivors. When preparing for the eulogy, he told me an anecdote about his Bar Mitzvah. When the guests sat down for the lunch, his parents disappeared. People searched the synagogue building for them, until finally they were found in a corner of the building, crying. His parents explained that they had to leave the Bar Mitzvah because they were emotionally overwhelmed; they never expected that they themselves were going to survive, let alone celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of a son.
But they did have a child. And he had a Bar Mitzvah. And so did countless others like them; immigrants, refugees, and survivors rebuilt what was broken, generation after generation. And it is because of people like them that we are here today; and we have every reason to believe there will be others like them tomorrow. The best proof of a Jewish future is the improbability of the Jewish past.

So how would I answer the question “why be Jewish”? To put it in a sentence: to be a part of the greatest story on earth, and to write the next chapter.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Against Graduation


The highlight of university graduations is the commencement address, where a prominent personality offers the students words of wisdom about entering the real world. Oftentimes the speaker, a celebrity or politician, is a mismatch for this dramatic speech; and as a result, the advice given is banal earnestness interspersed with second rate humor. The actor Will Ferrell, described this problem in his own commencement speech when he said: “I would also like to apologize to all the parents who are sitting there, saying, ‘Will Ferrell? Why Will Ferrell?.”

This year, when reading reports of the most recent batch of commencement addresses, I allowed myself to imagine what I would say. Then it hit me: the best advice to give graduates is that they should never graduate. The word “graduate” implies a conclusion; but learning must never stop, and intellectual curiosity must be lifelong. There is no graduation from learning.

Sadly, most university graduates leave learning once they leave the university. Critics of contemporary universities such as William Deresiewicz have noted that even the best universities have taken on a commercial ethos, and are an assembly line for career advancement. As a result the humanities suffer, and students are left with materialistic ambitions and intellectual apathy.

This decline in intellectual curiosity has lead to a coarsening of the public discourse. “High minded” discussion now revolves around politics and business, while too much conversation focuses on gossip, celebrities and TV shows. This is not surprising: serious, nuanced ideas can't compete in a world of social media. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”; sadly today too many lives are lived on the superficial plane, unexplored and unexamined. Our collective intellectual decline is a worrisome trend, one which could eventually impact on the health of Western democracies. Leon Wieseltier, in his Brandeis Commencement address in 2013 put it this way: “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

For the Jewish community this loss of intellectual interest is a calamity. Judaism sees Torah study as an all encompassing activity. One is obligated to study in every free moment, and learning is meant to be a passion, vocation, and the ultimate aspiration. Life without learning is unthinkable, and if the unexamined life is not worth living, then the Jewishly unexamined life is not worth pursuing. That is why Jews have always cherished learning. Jerome, the Church father, remarked that in the fourth century that the average Jew knew the Tanakh by heart. In Eastern Europe, even the less educated, such as bakers and coachmen, would hurry at night to study the weekly Parsha.

That has come to a halt. Mirroring the general intellectual malaise, too much of Jewish discourse has become superficial. To be Jewish now means to visit Israel, to make Jewish jokes, and to eat gefilte fish; all wonderful things of course, (except perhaps for gefilte fish), but lacking in substance. Study, if done at all, is pursued as a leisure activity. But our tradition takes the view that Torah, and wisdom in general, are not hobbies; they are existential needs, and life is unimaginable without learning.

My Yeshiva training exposed me to great personalities who saw learning as all important. In my years as a student I heard many a time about Rav Soloveitchik’s famous “Thanksgiving lecture of 1976”. That morning, he spent 5 hours in class trying to resolve a difficult question. Even though everyone (including Rav Soloveitchik himself) had to travel home for Thanksgiving dinner, he exclaimed that "no one can leave here until we understand what that Tosafot is saying!”.

This is learning that is a passion and not a hobby. And when learning is a passion, there are no graduations, and all of life is an intellectual journey.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Love after Death



Without question, the two most powerful forces in life are love and death. They are the opposing polarities of existence, creating life and taking it away, bringing enormous joy and causing overwhelming sorrow. All of life is a footnote to the themes of love and death.

Love is intoxicating. The biblical book of Song of Songs portrays the enormous power of love, with lovers who are “lovesick” (a term from the Song of Songs) and act irrationally. When Jacob falls in love with Rachel, he dramatically overpays for her dowry. Even so, Jacob imagines that he is the one who is getting a bargain, because he is so in love with Rachel. Jacob is blinded by love.

William Blake captures this mindless blindness in a short poem:  “Love to faults is always blind, Always is to joy inclin’d, Lawless, wing’d and unconfin’d, And breaks all chains from every mind”. Love hatches remarkable dreams that fly in every direction; with love nothing seems impossible.

Death brings a blindness of its own. When King Solomon writes the book of Kohelet, he begins with a complaint about the pointlessness of life; death confounds Solomon, the ultimate question without any answer. What point does life have, he asks, if the righteous man meets the same end as the wicked, and the wise man meets the same end as an animal? Overwhelmed by death, a blind cynicism descends, choking off any experience of joy.

The experiences described in the Song of Songs and Kohelet, the experiences of love and death, are each on their own way intoxicating; yet together they are absolutely incompatible. However, a third biblical book brings both of these themes together: the Book of Ruth. A family moves away from Israel and then is devastated by death, with a father and two sons who die at a young age. Alone and impoverished, one of the wives, Ruth, returns with her mother-in-law Naomi to Israel. Refusing to quit on life, Ruth persists despite discrimination and desperation to pursue a better life. She insists that she will rebuild the broken home and perpetuate the family of her husband and father in law; and in the end she does just that.

The Book of Ruth is not just a book of love and death; it is book about about a different type of love, a love that occurs after death. Instead of succumbing to cynicism, this love battles death; and instead of intoxication, this love arrives with the determination. The Book of Ruth defines redemption as the ability to rebuild and fix that which was broken; and that is  precisely what Ruth’s love does. Ruth teaches us that the road to redemption is found when you can continue to love after a tragedy, and when your love rebuilds a broken world.

Jewish history is a history of redemption. It is the story of people who continued to love despite tragedy, who rebuilt even though they had every reason to be bitter and cynical. In the last 75 years, we have watched the story of redemption unfold once again. Crushed by the Holocaust,  the Jewish people simply should have given up. Yet the survivors of these horrors followed Ruth’s example. They were part of the Bericha and smuggled in on boats to Israel, and thousands went directly to fight for the new state. Others arrived in North America ; they married, built families, businesses and communities.

I have been privileged to know many of these survivors, the redemptive rebuilders of the Jewish community. They gave charity with a fury, demanding a better world than the one they had escaped; and they celebrated with a unique joy, knowing that with each simcha they once again defied the angel of death. And when they made a l’chaim at a celebration, you could see in the twinkle of their eyes something remarkable: the miracle of redemption, the ability of love to overcome death.





Friday, April 28, 2017

Why Israel? A Haven, a Homeland, a Holy Land - Yom Haatzmaut 2017


Maybe it was crazy.

In February 2003, I led a mission to Israel shortly before the Iraq War. It was a time of great nervousness; when we arrived, we were greeted by full page ads in the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz from the Canadian government, advising Canadians to be ready to leave Israel. There was enormous concern that the war would break out, and Saddam Hussein would once again fire scuds at Israel.

Lisa and I walked up to the ticket counter in the airport with four kids aged 3 to 7 running excitedly in circles, and two small mountains of luggage precariously balanced on baggage carts; and with this bit of domestic chaos, we started checking in for our flight. Surveying the scene, the ticket agent did her best to help us. “Where are you going?” she asked in a sweet voice. “Tel Aviv”, I answered. She hesitated for a moment and said “I hope everything goes OK for you”.  I am not a mind reader, but I could readily tell that what she meant to say was: “are you crazy! Why are you bringing small children to a war zone?”.

“Are you crazy?” is the perfect question to start any discussion of Israel. Like any passion, those who don’t share the passion are bewildered by it.  Why are Zionists Zionists? Why do they love Israel?

There was a time when you didn’t have to explain Zionism, because Jews desperately needed a haven. The two millennia of Jewish life in exile are stained with a relentless stream of anti-Semitism. There are too many episodes of violence to count, including massacres, pogroms, Crusades, and expulsions. Even in the relatively “tranquil” times, Jews were second class citizens, the objects of legal and social discrimination.  A medieval author phrases it this way, in a passage included in the Monday and Thursday prayers: “Look down from heaven and see that we have become scorned and insulted among the nations, we have been led like sheep to the slaughter, to be murdered, destroyed, stricken, and disgraced.”  Exile was always an irritation, and often a misery.

Anti-Semitism spiked unexpectedly at the end of the 19th century. The Dreyfus Trial, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Kishinev Massacre, the Beilus Blood Libel, and the rise of anti-Semitic parties all foreshadowed the Holocaust. It was this atmosphere that inspired Theodore Herzl to seek a safe haven for the Jews. There is a bitter joke told that in 1939 a Viennese Jew enters a travel agent's office and says, "I want to buy a steamship ticket." "Where to?" the clerk asks. "Let me look at your globe, please." Every time he suggests a country, the clerk raises an objection. "This one requires visa, ... this one is not admitting any more Jews, ... the waiting list to get in there is ten years." Finally the Jew looks up and says: "Pardon me, do you have another globe?". Jews desperately needed a safe haven in the 1930’s, and tragically, they did not have one.

Israel is now the Jewish safe haven. Over the years, she has received Jews escaping  from Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia and the Soviet Union, and protected Jews in Entebbe, Kenya and beyond. Even today, for Jews in France and Venezuela, Israel acts as a security blanket for worried communities.

However, having a safe haven is not important if you live in an open, multicultural society. For American Jews, the United States might be more comfortable than Israel. Considering that Jews have other havens, one might argue that Israel is an anachronism.

This question is an old one. During discussions with Chaim Weizmann over the possibility of a Jewish territory under the British mandate, Arthur Balfour asked the same question of Chaim Weizmann: wouldn’t Uganda be just as good? Weizman records his response and the rest of the conversation:

"Mr. Balfour, supposing I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?" He sat up, looked at me, and answered: "But Dr. Weizmann, we have London." "That is true," I said, "but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh."

Israel is not just a haven; it is a homeland. It is the birthplace of the Jewish people, and the land that has nurtured the Jewish soul for 3,300 years. There is a unique connection to a homeland, where you naturally put down roots and flourish.  The Bible records that when the farmer would bring an offering of first fruits, he would issue a declaration that unlike his ancestors he no longer has to wander; instead, he can experience the blessings of being rooted in one place, having a home that nurtures the soul as well as the body.

There is a theory that Jewish creativity is an side effect of exile; years of improvising to survive have turned the Jews into master improvisers in every arena, including science and culture. It is an interesting theory, but incorrect; the record of the State of Israel contradicts this. On the contrary, having roots, having a homeland has allowed Jews to flourish in multiple ways. Israel has become a world leader in culture, science, and social services. Returning home hasn’t dampened Jewish creativity, it has actually increased it. As the Jewish farmer might say, having roots bears fruit, and having a country of your own unleashes the spirit.  A homeland is transformative, even if you feel at home in another country.

Israel has been a haven and homeland; but for the religious Zionist, another answer is far more significant: Israel is the holy land. This theme begins in the Bible, and trickles all the way down to pop culture, which is why all visitors to the Western Wall, (including artists, athletes, and actors), leave a note for God in its crevices.

However, it a mistake to assume that the idea of a holy land is for the religious only, and that the holiness of Israel is found only in historic shrines.

A few years ago a woman approached me with a request. She was trying to convey to her son, an atheist, what Israel was all about. She had brought him to the Western Wall, but it had very little impact on him. So she turned to me for advice on how she could inspire her son to feel a connection to Israel.

I told her that I find my greatest inspiration in Israel at the shopping malls of Tel Aviv. Yes, that is correct: at the shopping mall (even though I hate shopping). The reason why is because it’s at a shopping mall that the triple miracle of modern Israel is most apparent. First of all, the Jews should have disappeared after 2,000 years of exile and persecution. Second of all, the country of Israel is perhaps the most improbable event in all of history, a fossil that was extinct for 2,000 years coming back to life. And third of all, this country, built by a mixed multitude of lonely refugees, should have been a charity case rather than a world leader with a first world economy. The fact that the Jews are here, the State of Israel is here, and it is a world leader despite decades of constant attacks, is the equivalent of winning the lottery three times in a row. That, even for an atheist, has to be pretty remarkable. To quote Isaiah: “Who has ever heard of such things? Who has ever seen things like this?” After walking around a cutting edge Israeli shopping mall, even a non-believer can stand in inspiration of these miracles, and see this land as inspiring, even holy.

Israel is a haven, a homeland and holyland; and she is at her best when you can glimpse all three at the same time. One such example is anecdote that was shared on Facebook during Operation Defensive Edge in 2014:  

“The father of a soldier who is now in Gaza told how his son was informed on Friday that his unit will not be going home for Shabbat, which was a problem, because they did not have any provisions for Shabbat. The father ran to the supermarket to buy some things, as many dips and salads as he could, and then he stopped at the shwarma stand in Petach Tikva. He asked for a shwarma to be put into an aluminium tray and explained that it was a Shabbat meal for his son who is in Gaza. The owner said to him "what do you mean for your son? How many soldiers are in his group?" The father answered "70". The owner called over his workers and they brought out all of their meat, fried schnitzels, prepared Moroccan salads and chips and within an hour he and all of his workers had emptied the entire restaurant and given it over to the father. The father just stood there crying and thanking him.”

This powerful anecdote is a microcosm of the story of Israel. It is about a safe haven protected by dedicated soldiers. It is about a homeland where even the man at the local shwarma stand is like a member of family. And it is about a holyland, a place filled with a unique heart and soul. There are many things that make Israel extraordinary, but one of them is this: if you need 70 shawarmas on a Friday, there’s someone who will stop everything and get them for you.


Chag Sameach!